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writing for godot

Two Cultures

Written by Gerald G Day   
Sunday, 24 January 2010 17:54
It has been fifty years since C.P. Snow delivered his famous and controversial
lecture "The Two Cultures." A novelist trained as a physicist, Snow lamented the lack
of communication between two "cultures," that of scientists and one he described as
"literary" or "traditional;" the inhabitants of the latter were referred to variously as
intellectuals, literary intellectuals or, simply, non-scientists. His ostensible aim was to
encourage educating each in the knowledge peculiar to the other, but he went on to
criticize the traditional culture which he saw as providing the governing class for
making a mess of the world, and to suggest that we would be better off with scientists
in charge.
Snow thought that "[i]ntellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural
Luddites." However, his expectation of the scientific understanding which non-
scientists should have was unrealistic. He contended that not being able (as a
non-scientist) to recite the second law of thermodynamics was equivalent (for a
scientist) to not having read a play by Shakespeare.
One of his critics, Michael Yudkin, a scientist, pointed out that Snow was not
drawing a valid parallel. "To read Dickens, or to hear Mozart, or to see a Titian can
be in itself a rewarding activity; but to find out what is meant by acceleration
[another of Snow's examples] is to gain a piece of factual information which in itself
has no value." Yudkin acknowledged that aspects of scientific training would be
useful to one educated in another field: "What would be of value is an understanding
of the process and manner of scientific thinking; for it is the nature of scientific
judgment, the habit of a peculiar form of critical thought, which makes scientific work
a worthwhile intellectual activity, and, incidentally, which would give science some
value as a disciplined study for the non-scientist." That certainly is true, and learning
how to think and analyze in that fashion would make both communication and good
decision-making more likely.
In a later essay, Snow admitted that his demand for mastery of the second law of
thermodynamics was more laughable than sensible, and proposed molecular biology
in its place. That still is daunting, and his discussion did not make it less so,
although he referred to DNA, which a literary intellectual might be expected to
understand in a very general way.
However, the issue of education scientific, literary and more is important
beyond the confines of the two sets of elites whom Snow addressed. Bringing the
discussion into the present and this country, the American public needs both respect
for scientific opinion and method, and some basic level of scientific knowledge, in
order to understand important public issues, e.g., global warming, and to have a
rational attitude toward education, e.g., as to evolution. Unfortunately, many are
ignorant not only about science and the scientific method, but about many other
fields, including history, and, worse yet, are hostile to learning of any kind. This goes
beyond the typical disdain for pretentious intellectuals. We are developing a different
pair of "cultures": knowledge and ignorance.
There are any number of reasons for the growth of ignorance, including the
deficiencies in education and a culture in the broader and more usual sense
which is superficial and crude. Three more specific causes can be identified.
One is religion. Religious belief, being based on faith, always will be, to some
degree, resistant to empirical data or theories which challenge those beliefs. That
resistance is not total. Christianity has accommodated itself to new information; not
many believers still think that the sun revolves around the Earth. However, there is
an influential strain of conservative American Christianity which is aggressively
resistant to information considered incompatible with doctrine. Rejection of the
theory of evolution is the prime example, and the influence of the religious right is
such that Republican presidential candidates feel compelled to declare their disdain
for it.
With or without a nudge from the religious right, conservative politicians provide
another source. Facts are merely tools to use, misuse or abandon, as the need
requires; this produces tales of such imaginary evils as death panels and detention
camps. That the incoherent Sarah Palin is a leading contender for the 2010
nomination is the perfect summation of the Republican attitude toward knowledge.
The third source is the politicized, right-leaning branch of the news media, again
sometimes peddling a benighted form of religious belief. Rush Limbaugh, in his book
The Way Things Ought to Be, informed us, in a chapter entitled "Sorry, But the
Earth Is Not Fragile," that it is presumptuous to think that man could destroy God's
creation; therefore we should ignore the warnings of scientists about the
environment. Accordingly, he made light of the problems of automobile-created
pollution. He also claimed that the US has more trees now than in 1776, or more
acreage of forest land now than in 1787 (on radio 2/18/94) or in 1492 (in his second
book See, I Told You So). Assuming that he's comparing the same area, i.e., that
covered by the 50 states, he's off a bit.
Continuing the anti-environmental theme, Glenn Beck claimed that there is no
evidence that DDT is harmful to people. Beck's employer, Fox News, is ever ready to
spread and to encourage irrational rants, such as those from the tea parties.
A high level of ignorance, a superficial culture and political hostility are not
unique, and their convergence may not be, nor perhaps even the combination of
those with politicized mass media if we define that term to require only newspapers,
radio and movies. However, television and the internet have combined to make
possible the spread of misinformation, half-truths, lies and reactionary doctrine to an
extent not previously seen.
What would Lord Snow think of this culture? your social media marketing partner
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